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21st November 2009 | Draft

Overpopulation Debate as a Psychosocial Hazard

development of safety guidelines from handling other hazardous materials

-- / --

Psychosocial hazards of overpopulation debate
Sexually sensitive matters: relevance to handling overpopulation debate
Biohazards: relevance to handling overpopulation debate
Psychosocial adaptation of biohazard safety levels
Radioactive contamination: relevance to handling overpopulation debate
Security threat management: relevance to handling overpopulation debate
Document classification: relevance to handling overpopulation debate
Relevance of interaction with highly proactive advocates of alternative views
Psychoactive drugs: relevance to handling overpopulation debate
Challenge of psychosocially hazardous encounters with otherness
Psychoactive hazard warnings: symbols relevant to overpopulation debate
Conference centres as psychosocially safe environments: Copenhagen, 2009?
Mapping hot spots and degrees of psychosocial hazard

Produced as a contribution to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (Copenhagen, 2009)
on the occasion of publication of the UN's State of World Population (2009).


Any discussion of the challenge of overpopulation has come to be considered such a political "hot potato" that the question of how to discuss it merits consideration in the light of well-developed ability to handle radioactive hazards and biohazards. The argument here focuses on how issues deemed politically hazardous can be discussed without endangering the discussants. The approach taken is to use the handling of hazardous materials, if only as a metaphor, through which to identify viable procedures appropriate to the perceived level of threat to psychosocial health from any such topic.

The concern follows from earlier reviews of systemic avoidance of any discussion of overpopulation (Institutionalized Shunning of Overpopulation Challenge: incommunicability of fundamentally inconvenient truth, 2008) -- most notably reflected in the analysis of climate change (United Nations Overpopulation Denial Conference: exploring the underside of climate change, 2009). The purpose here is however to focus on the challenge of debate on highly controversial topics and not on the specifics of overpopulation -- given that there are neither the global arenas in which such discussion can now safely take place nor the articulation of their dimensions to enable that discussion.

Although overpopulation is treated as the prime example here, the argument is relevant to debate about other "hot" topics and related denial (Checklist of Peak Experiences Challenging Humanity, 2008; Lipoproblems: Developing a Strategy Omitting a Key Problem, 2009; Guidelines for Critical Dialogue between Worldviews, 2006). At the time of writing for example, the failure to address official overestimation of oil reserves has been highlighted with the consequent constraint on capacity to grow adequate supplies of food (George Monbiot, The one thing depleting faster than oil is the credibility of those measuring it, The Guardian, 16 November 2009). With more than 1 billion people suffering from hunger, the World Summit on Food Security (Rome, 2009) was snubbed by the world's leaders, failed to deliver binding aid commitments, and did not set a target date for the eradication of hunger. The United Nations Climate Change Conference (Copenhagen, 2009) is set to follow that pattern, however the outcome is finally spun.

The concern addressed here follows from a more general preoccupation with the evident incapacity to respond to recognized global strategic challenges (Recognizing the Psychosocial Boundaries of Remedial Action: constraints on ensuring a safe operating space for humanity, 2009). The recent focus on moral hazard in relation to extreme financial risk-taking has also tended to obscure the associated moral and ethical hazards of inappropriate responses to other risks, notably those engendered by unsustainable population growth. More problematic is that debate on such matters is now itself effectively framed as psychosocially hazardous.

Psychosocial hazards of overpopulation debate

Psychosocial hazards: Recognition is already accorded to the existence of "psychosocial hazards" in the workplace where these are understood as a source of stress. The study of Rick J. Briner, et al. (A Critical Review of Psychosocial Hazard Measures, 2001) focuses on the research tools used to quantify factors causing stress in the workplace, which they summarize in the following terms:

The report identifies existing approaches and looks for evidence of their reliability (do they produce consistent measures) and the validity of their results (do they measure what they are supposed to). The authors conclude that it is impossible to recommend any of the methods devised for measuring the various stress-causing agents, and demand a rethink. Measures of stress need to be job specific and based on best practice, and self-reporting questionnaires are not broad enough.

Clearly some attention could be given to this methodology in considering the psychosocial hazards to politicians and policy-makers in any concerns they may have in relation to debate on overpopulation.

It cannot be emphasized too strongly the dangers to the careers, funding and livelihood of those venturing to consider overpopulation as a major challenge for the survival of civilization as it is currently appreciated. This is especially the case where governance is, to an important degree, faith-based -- and where politicians are subject to strong pressures from religious constituencies.

Moral hazards: This is a more widely recognized variant of psychosocial hazard. Moral hazard occurs when a body that has been insulated from risk behaves differently from the manner it would behave had it been fully exposed to that risk. The hazard arises because those so insulated tend to have access to more relevant information regarding the risk than those dependent upon them to provide protection against the risk. Such hazard is notably recognized in the context of investment under risk, and insurance against such risk, when those empowered to do so fail to take full responsibility for the actions for which they are assumed to be responsible, effectively obliging others to take a degree of responsibility -- of which they may not have been appropriately informed. In the insurance industry, to the extent that this is done without conscious or malicious intent, it is known by the related term as morale hazard.

Moral hazard was frequently evoked in analysis of responsibilities relating to the sale of toxic derivatives held to have triggered the financial crisis of 2008. The dilemmas are also discussed in terms of business ethics as "ethical hazards". Denis Collins (Essentials of Business Ethics: creating an organization of high integrity and superior performance, 2009) proposes ten signs of "ethical hazards approaching". As noted in analysis of early warnings given regarding the risks associated with problematic mortgages, the institutional careers of those formulating such warnings were placed at risk in doing so.

Institutions of governance claim to provide a form of insurance against the risks to which the governed may be exposed. They too are then exposed to moral hazard through their possession of more information regarding the crises they are mandated to anticipate -- if the governed effectively have responsibilities in the matter of which they are not aware. The major crises facing humanity and the planet, to which governance claims to be responding on behalf of the governed, can be understood as placing such institutions and their representatives in a condition of moral hazard. It is not clear whether any of the signs regarding such crises are considered to be indicative of "ethical hazards approaching".

The management of risks arising from overpopulation, and its pressure on resources, then constitutes a source of moral hazard -- even of ethical hazard -- given the only too visible results in terms of starvation, disease, and malnutrition as implied by the failure of the World Summit on Food Security (Rome, 2009). These then constitute particular psychosocial hazards for politicians and policy-makers -- especially when those risks are inadequately communicated to the governed and the latter are effectively holding responsibilities (of which they are not aware) for the consequences of this failure of communication. The challenge is exacerbated when efforts to communicate the situation are undermined by denial and other processes in order to facilitate questionable agendas or "business as usual".

Panic: Psychosocial hazard may also be recognized in terms of the risk of panic that any unconventional topic is likely to induce in the wider population. The possibility of such panic is repeatedly rehearsed by movie dramatizations of impending disaster (asteroid strikes, major terrorist threats, invasion by extraterrestrials, etc). The panic purportedly associated with other foreseen crises has been usefully reframed by John L. Farrands (Don't Panic, Panic: the use and abuse of science to create fear, 1993) with respect to overpopulation (Challenge of Overpopulation: Now for some real problems -- Don't Panic, PANIC, 1993).

Overpopulation debate is especially likely to induce such panic because of the increasingly extreme constraints on access to vital resources and the implications of any constraint on the fundamental desire to procreate. The issue for institutions of governance is then how to present information that is likely to induce panic, to whom, and especially within what framework. A classic example is the presentation of any information regarding contact with extraterrestrials. This is a recurring theme currently brought to the fore by Michael Salla (Official Disclosure of Extraterrestrial Life is Imminent, Honolulu Exopolitics Examiner, 21 October 2009), notably remarking on a secret meeting at the United Nations (February 2008) at which some 30 nations agreed on a new openness policy on UFOs and extraterrestrial life in 2009 despite the associated security threats of social upheavals (Political Implications of the Extra-terrestrial Presence, Exopolitics, 2008).

Other variants: Also meriting investigation are the challenges of philosophical hazard, epistemological hazard, intellectual hazard, conceptual hazard, cognitive hazard and spiritual hazard. Under the circumstances, debate itself may be seen as constituting a hazard as indicated by the justification for the exclusion of the population factor from consideration by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as indicated in the insert below.

Hazard of debate itself
...with the scope and legitimacy of population control subject to ongoing debate...
(Extract from Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007)

The Kaya identity (Kaya, 1990) is a decomposition that expresses the level of energy related CO2 emissions as the product of four indicators: (1) carbon intensity (CO2 emissions per unit of total primary energy supply (TPES)), (2) energy intensity (TPES per unit of GDP), (3) gross domestic product per capita (GDP/cap) and (4) population. The global average growth rate of CO2 emissions between 1970 and 2004 of 1.9% per year is the result of the following annual growth rates: population 1.6%, GDP/cap12 1.8%, energy-intensity of -1.2% and carbon-intensity -0.2% ....

At the global scale, declining carbon and energy intensities have been unable to offset income effects and population growth and, consequently, carbon emissions have risen....

The challenge - an absolute reduction of global GHG emissions - is daunting. It presupposes a reduction of energy and carbon intensities at a faster rate than income and population growth taken together. Admittedly, there are many possible combinations of the four Kaya identity components, but with the scope and legitimacy of population control subject to ongoing debate, the remaining two technology-oriented factors, energy and carbon intensities, have to bear the main burden....

From: Rogner, H.-H., D. Zhou, R. Bradley. P. Crabbé, O. Edenhofer, B.Hare (Australia), L. Kuijpers, M. Yamaguchi, 2007: Introduction. In Climate Change 2007: Mitigation. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [B. Metz, O.R. Davidson, P.R. Bosch, R. Dave, L.A. Meyer (eds)], Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

Existential threat: Perhaps at its most fundamental level, as shared with communities of animals, "them" are always experienced as an existential threat to "us" (Us and Them -- Relating to Challenging Others: patterns in the shadow dance between "good" and "evil", 2009). The climate change debate has however made evident another process, as a consequence of borrowing the language of other challenging debates, namely:

Such cases all render extremely hazardous any debate on population policy.

Sexually sensitive matters: relevance to handling overpopulation debate

There is a long-standing cultural sensitivity to discussion of matters relating to sexuality in public fora, notably by policy-makers. It has however become progressively necessary to debate and legislate on matters such as sexual inequality in working conditions, discrimination against women more generally, sex workers, sexually transmitted diseases, sexual abuse (notably in the domestic environment), and pornography.

This has been achieved reasonably successfully without endangering the political health of those engaged in the debate, although issues remain as indicated by the need to create the Women's Forum for the Economy and Society as a counterpart to the Davos Forum (Women and the Underside of Meetings: symptoms of denial in considering strategic options, 2009) But this has not been the case with respect to overpopulation -- as a challenge for society as a whole. This is perceived to be a much more dangerous topic given that this touches on the fundamental right to have as many children as is desired -- whether or not others are to be obliged to provide the resources subsequently required. In late 1967, some thirty nations had indeed agreed to the following, as noted by U Thant:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes the family as the natural and fundamental unit of society. It follows that any choice and decision with regard to the size of the family must irrevocably rest with the family itself, and cannot be made by anyone else. (International Planned Parenthood News, 168, February 1968, p. 3)

To the extent the matter is considered, this takes the form of concern with sex education in schools or dissemination of material on contraceptives -- notably in response to the recognized challenge of teenage pregnancies.

It is however the case that public debate on issues relating to abortion and contraception has been a source of great controversy. The danger to those promoting such issues is evident in the occasional deadly action of religious fundamentalists against abortion clinics. The associated level of unreported death threats can only be suspected.

Given the major role of Christianity in inhibiting meaningful debate on the sexual implications of overpopulation, there is considerable irony to the fact that the Catholic Church has been faced in recent years with the horrendous challenge of endeavouring to manage the hazardous debate on the widespread incidence of sexual abuse by clergy. This is especially significant to the following argument given the extreme psychosocial hazard to all parties, especially in countries valuing faith-based governance.

Biohazards: relevance to handling overpopulation debate

Discussion of overpopulation might be explored metaphorically as a form of "biohazard" -- namely hazardous to the health of those who debate it because of its virulent impact on the body politic or any of its members, especially their livelihood, or even their spiritual well-being. In the latter case this derives from the unqualified biblical injunction to "go forth and multiply" (Genesis 1:28).

In exploring the insights from this metaphor, it is useful to note that a biological hazard is an organism (or substance derived from an organism) that poses a threat to human health (primarily). This can include medical waste or samples of a microorganism, virus or toxin (from a biological source) that can impact human health. There is a degree of irony to the fact that the human population explosion has effectively acquired the characteristics of a biological hazard for other species. Comparisons have long been made with humanity as a disease or a virus in the planetary ecosystem

The useful parallel to this essentially "genetic" threat may perhaps be best found in "memetics", where a meme is a postulated unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Any proposed effort to challenge population growth might then be understood as a highly dangerous meme -- part of the class of phenomena contributing to "memetic pollution". It might even be considered a memetic disease (Memetic and Information Diseases in a Knowledge Society: speculations towards the development of cures and preventive measures, 2008).

One understanding of memes is offered by W. David Kubiak (The Abhorrence of Exotic Ideas: Japan's comparative advantage in memetic immunity, 1998) in terms of:

He notes that:

Democracy, feminism and rock music, on the other hand, spread quite spontaneously, infecting even social bodies that put up vigorous defenses against them. Defense against new value-laden memes is in fact a major concern in most social bodies, which brings us round again to our analysis of pollution.... Prudent social bodies guard themselves against memetic pollution either by isolation or immunization. Isolation involves sealing off channels where new memes can enter, usually by closing ports or borders, prohibiting travel and controlling the flow of information.

The current reluctance to consider any challenge from overpopulation derives in major part from the Abrahamic religions (Root Irresponsibility for Major World Problems: the unexamined role of Abrahamic faiths in sustaining unrestrained population growth, 2007). Thus from a Christian perspective, consideration of overpopulation is readily to be understood as a form of memetic pollution (Smashing the Gods: Evolution in the Christian Universe):

Can not the tree of knowledge whose fruit Adam and Eve ate be reckoned as a memetic complex that installed inherently false memes aside from what ever benefits, real or pretended? So here is a problem, there is memetic pollution that seeks to abort the memes of truth. A person's own mindset, wisdom and knowledge is often a barrier to faith, the spiritual truths seem like folly.

This may be framed as "mind pollution" or "spiritual pollution". At a recent synod of clerics about Africa, for example, the Pope noted that Africa was at risk of another "virus", namely religious fundamentalism (Pope Benedict XVI says 'spiritual garbage' is poisoning Africa, The Guardian, 9 October 2009). The synod also discussed the controversy regarding condom use.

On the other hand the mode of transmission of memes has been creatively adapted through "viral marketing" techniques that use pre-existing social networks to produce increases in brand awareness or to achieve other marketing objectives (such as product sales) through self-replicating viral processes, analogous to the spread of pathological and computer viruses. Clearly any use of such techniques to explore concerns regarding overpopulation would be considered highly problematic and would call for some kinds of "anti-viral" measures.

Psychosocial adaptation of biohazard safety levels

The various levels of biohazard have been categorized by the United States' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These are summarized in the Wikipedia entry on levels of biohazard. A biosafety level is the level of the biocontainment precautions required to isolate dangerous biological agents in an enclosed facility. The levels of containment range from the minimum risk of Level 1 to the extreme risk of Level 4. Here the concern is however to elicit from that scale implications for an understanding of a "psychosafety level" or possibly a "psychosocial safety level":

Traces of these procedures are already evident in the need to hold debates on certain issues "behind closed doors" or in a "safe environment" -- as noted above with respect to the security threats arising from recognition of extraterrestrials.

Pointers to development of "cognitive Hazmat suits"
for psychosocially hazardous conference conditions?
Imagining "cognitive Hazmat suits" for psychosocially hazardous conference conditions Imagining "cognitive Hazmat suits" for psychosocially hazardous conference conditions Imagining "cognitive Hazmat suits" for psychosocially hazardous conference conditions

There is an explicit concern in biohazard facilities to control air pressure (Isolation Rooms and Pressurization Control, 2008). As implied by the dangers identified by Barbara Ehrenreich (Bright-Sided: how the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America, 2009; see review), this suggests the need for analogous considerations in the case of psychohaz facilities, in the light of the following distinctions:

One approach is of course to enable participants in a psychologically hazardous discussion to move within such a facility appropriately garbed in "cognitive Hazmat suits". Such protective clothing might also be relevant to related challenges (Epistemological Challenge of Cognitive Body Odour: exploring the underside of dialogue, 2006; Strategic Challenge of Polysensorial Knowledge: bringing the "elephant" into "focus", 2008; Burkha as Metaphorical Mirror for Imperious Culture? 2009).

Traditional "cognitive Hazmat suit": Three Wise Monkeys of Nikko
See no evil, speak no evil, and hear no evil.
Traditional "cognitive Hazmat suit": Three Wise Monkeys of Nikko
A widely-known "four monkey" version is commonly available to tourists
and is of more relevance to failure to address the overpopulation issue.

Radioactive contamination: relevance to handling overpopulation debate

A topic like overpopulation, considered politically to be a "hot potato", can be usefully considered in the light of the considerable experience in handling radioactive materials and the potential dangers of radioactive contamination of an environment. As a metaphor, it suggests that certain concepts relating to "population" may effectively become "hot" through a consideration of them in an unusual form -- as memetic "isotopes" from whose instability potentially harmful consequences result.

The literature indicates that in practice no environments are free from some degree of radioactive contamination -- if only due to bombardment by "cosmic rays" (a notion of potential metaphorical relevance in any discussion framed by faith-based governance). The hazards to those discussing overpopulation and to their environment depend on the form of the contaminating theme, the level of that contamination, and the extent of the spread of the contamination. A distinction is however made between:

It may be fruitful to review the environments in which interdisciplinary debate takes place, given that hazardous topics tend to be characterized by their multidisciplinary and inter-sectoral implications -- typically addressing a greater degree of complexity then is characteristic of the comfort zones of the individual disciplines. A proven method for containing the spread of memetic contaminants is carefully to control the range of disciplines represented -- avoiding the taint of challenging methodologies and the impurities of other ways of knowing that they bring to preferred models.

As an example, in the decades subsequent to the interdisciplinary consideration of world dynamics that gave rise to The Limits to Growth (1972) study, the population factor was successfully marginalized as irrelevant, if not deprecated (Graham Turner, A Comparison of the Limits to Growth with Thirty Years of Reality, CSIRO, 2007). However, most curiously, days before the much-acclaimed United Nations Climate Change Conference (Copenhagen) the United Nations Population Fund published the State of World Population (2009). For the first time the UN draws a link between demographic pressure and climate change (Bronwen Maddox, Taboo is Broken: it's time for action on population, backed for once by the US, TimesOnline, 19 November 2009). The report notes:

Slower population growth... would help build social resilience to climate change's impacts and would contribute to a reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions in the future

However the timing of this unprecedented acknowledgement ensures that the link cannot be effectively considered in either the climate change models on which the Copenhagen negotiations are based or in the months of negotiations preceding the event. Were the implications of the link too "hot" to handle? (Maria Cheng, UN: Fight climate change with free condoms, Associated Press, 18 November 2009; Ben Webster, Birth control: the most effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, TimesOnline, 19 November 2009; (Natasha Gilbert, Curbing population growth crucial to reducing carbon emissions, Nature, 18 November 2009).

Curiously it is the UN itself, not science, that has been able to acknowledge this link -- with "science" seemingly surprised by a factor originally highlighted by the Club of Rome study in 1972. The report notes that, despite the recognized influence of population on climate, the link has barely featured in scientific and diplomatic discussions. Given the claimed importance of the crisis, this is tantamount to intellectual dishonesty of the highest degree -- especially on the part of science. Politically publication of the report may even have been timed to provide a media focus to reframe the expected failure of the Copenhagen negotiations. Or even to block them? -- if "blocking climate change" is presented as requiring "distributing condoms", then opposition to the latter will surely encourage opposition to the former.

As a further example, current consideration of geoengineering responses to global warming typically excludes biological factors -- again without any consideration of rising pressures from overpopulation, on the unproven assumption that fertility reduction will provide an adequate corrective (Geo-engineering Oversight Agency for Thermal Stabilization (GOATS), 2008). This is indicative of the value of silo thinking and tunnel vision as a means of avoiding psychoactive hazard, notably in the form of cognitive panic attacks. Reassuring protection against panic may be further enhanced by various forms of groupthink. -- despite the risks of "global intelligence failure" as documented in the focus on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Pre-War Assessments on Iraq, 9 July 2004).

An appropriately designed psychohazard facility should then allow for the representation and discussion of a complete spectrum of relevant hazards -- appropriately protecting those endeavouring to handle the topics considered most dangerous. Otherwise expressed, the outcome of any creative "brainstorming" should not be condemned as psychosocially hazardous to convention when a requisite variety of perspectives may in fact be essential to fruitful assessment of strategic opportunities -- if the hazards are appropriately handled.

The challenge is exemplified in:

It could be argued that the interpretation of "business as usual" in both cases is unfortunately focused on the more readily questionable procedures and methods excemplified by the recent failures of the globalization agenda. Potentially more fruitful would be new modes of thinking for which some have long appealed -- as in the arguments of the Edward de Bono Foundation (World Council for New Thinking; World Centre for New Thinking). However, since unconventional modes of thinking are authomatically conflated with psychosocially hazardous approaches, there is little possibility of benefitting from them in the absence of appropriate psychohaz facilities. The irony is evident in the obvious need for procedures to handle radioactivity in order to benefit from nuclear energy.

Security threat management: relevance to handling overpopulation debate

The United Nations Climate Change Conference (Copenhagen, 2009) has been widely presented as a last-chance response to a global threat facing humanity and the planet. Considerable effort has been previously devoted to organizing response to an earlier threat held to be of equivalent gravity, namely planetary annihilation through nuclear conflict. This has subsequently been adapted to the later global threat of worldwide terrorism as the ultimate challenge to global civilization. There is therefore a case for considering how levels of threat can be understood more generally as applicable to psychosocial hazards such as debate on overpopulation -- or other threats yet to be declared or already in the pipeline (Promoting a Singular Global Threat -- Terrorism: strategy of choice for world governance, 2002).

One merit of recognition of psychosocial hazard in terms of threat is that degrees of threat have long been categorized for purposes of military readiness and levels of response. The question was previously discussed as to whether levels of fear or terror can be usefully correlated with the US DEFense CONdition (defense readiness) typology (Varieties of Terrorism: extended to the experience of the terrorized, 2004). In the USA, in the event of a national emergency, a series of seven different alert Conditions (LERTCONs) can be called. The 7 LERTCONs are broken down into 5 Defense Conditions (DEFCONs) and 2 Emergency Conditions (EMERGCONs). Defense readiness conditions (DEFCONs) describe progressive alert postures primarily for use between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commanders of unified commands and are graduated to match situations of varying military severity. They are are phased increases in combat readiness [more]:

In direct response to the terrorist threat, TotalSecurity.US, has partnered with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to establish and create two new phases in the Homeland Security Advisory System resulting in a seven-colour scale understanding of collective threat [more]. These might be adapted to indication of levels of psychosocial defensiveness in response to psychosocial hazard -- notably within conference facilities (as noted below) variously discussing issues such as overpopulation.

A great value of strategic threat assessment is the deliberate effort to recognize the challenge of uncertainty, as highlighted in the notorious poem of former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld (The Unknown, 2002). The challenge is to apply such sensitivity to psychosocial hazards to other strategic threats like overpopulation (Unknown Undoing: challenge of incomprehensibility of systemic neglect, 2008).

Of relevance to the design and operation of psychohazard facilities, the situation rooms from which security threats are managed ("thinking the unthinkable") might be understood as offering insights into psychosocial hazard handling -- as in the case of general panic.

Document classification: relevance to handling overpopulation debate

Film: In this case a motion picture rating system is designated to classify films with regard to suitability for audiences in terms of challenging issues such as sex, violence, substance abuse, profanity, impudence or other types of mature content. The issue of overpopulation may be fruitfully considered as similarly problematic. In the light of such a classification system, the film is then certified for appropriate audiences to facilitate provision of guidance on suitability. This raises the interesting question of how the level of "maturity" is to be assessed for those exposed to psychologically hazardous material on overpopulation

Literature: In this case there has been a long tradition of censorship -- of which that of the Catholic Church is the most frequently cited example (Index Librorum Prohibitorum). The concern in the latter case is to avoid endangering the souls of those exposed to such materials. Any effort to discuss topics such as overpopulation may be understood as equally hazardous -- especially when the danger is held to be eternal (in the light of the divine injunction of Genesis 1:28). Of interest would be the procedures governing the management of such materials as assembled within the relevant section of the Vatican Library -- effectively a psychohazard facility in its own right.

Currently it is typically libraries that are under pressure to control the manner in which they make available works considered hazardous to readers. Public libraries may simply be obliged to refuse to hold such materials. Academic libraries may have specially reserved collections, most notably for erotica, esoterica, magic and witchcraft. Groups, such as secret societies, may control accessibility to sections of their collections according to the degree of initiation into the knowledge they value (in the light of its potential danger to the uninitiated).

Sensitive information: Documents of any kind, and their dissemination, may of course be treated as classified information governed by rules relating to confidentiality, especially those dealing with issues deemed a threat to some understanding of national security -- notably distinguished as Top Secret, Secret, Confidential, and Restricted. This is the case with classification of documents within intergovernmental systems (such as the United Nations) or by intelligence services. Clearly access to challenging information on overpopulation now requires appropriate "clearance" and presumably merits analogous identification.

Web documents: Dissemination of controversial documents over the web constitutes another level of challenge which is most evident in the case of pornographic materials. Pressures continue to build regarding responsibility of access to certain sites or the use of "nanny programs", and the criminalization of possession of certain materials deemed to be a threat. Given the progressive legislative conflation of democratic dissent with threats to security, these provisions may be extended to any form of threat to psychosocial safety. Presumably access to controversial material on the challenge of overpopulation will increasingly be controlled by this means -- conflating overpopulation issues with the provisions for sexually suggestive materials.

Memetic warfare: The effectiveness of these systems is however widely disputed, especially when it is open to abuse. In the case of the web however, as with other telecommunications systems, means are already in place to terminate or selectively filter communications deemed hazardous -- in anticipation of information warfare and cyberwarfare, themselves readily to be conflated with memetic warfare (Missiles, Missives, Missions and Memetic Warfare: navigation of strategic interfaces in multidimensional knowledge space, 2001).

The challenges of administering any system of classification may however be entirely avoided by simply censoring their production if they are deemed too controversial. This is presumably the case with regard to many possible works on the overpopulation challenge -- especially if the very concept is deemed to be blasphemous.

Relevance of interaction with highly proactive advocates of alternative views

It is the case that those engaging in some form of dialogue in order to promote a particular agenda, or an alternative worldview, may be exceptionally skilled in that process. Their skills may be experienced as a direct threat to long-held assumptions. Such interaction might be understood as typical of dialogue between political opponents and of parliamentary debate. More relevant to the argument here is when any such encounter is experienced as threatening or is viewed as "dangerous" by others (Guidelines for Critical Dialogue between Worldviews, 2006).

Exposure to "dangerous" perspectives and their promulgation has been of great concern:

In any such case it is the degree of skilled manipulation that is the primary characteristic of the dangerous threat to previously held views. This may be experienced and labelled (perhaps metaphorically) as:

Especially interesting, and threatening, is dialogue with individuals or sects who actively value and cultivate such skills -- whether consciously or unconsciously. In the case of an individual, the skill is frequently framed appreciatively in terms of charisma or charm -- irrespective of any manipulative tendencies. One variant practiced by groups is "love-bombing". Extreme examples are offered by individuals who have been "institutionalized" because of the highly manipulative threat they constitute in interaction with others, as with some held to be suffering from psychoses or neuroses. The procedures of "asylums" might therefore be fruitfully reviewed for insights into the possible organization of psychohaz facilities.

Related techniques are of course central to government propaganda and spin, notably as disseminated via the media. Facilities for "mind control", "brainwashing", "thought reform" and "coercive persuasion" can be understood as a focus for psychohazardous processes. Given the use of these techniques in enhanced interrogation, the organization of facilities for this purpose might be reviewed for insights regarding psychohaz facilities. Are there learnings from Guantanamo Bay with regard to the appropriate isolation of discussants of overpopulation and other hot topics, given the danger they constitute to society? This would be consistent with the historical role of environments within which heretical views endangering the souls of the community were deliberately elicited.

Of hypothetical interest is the quality of manipulation that may be characteristic of any future interaction with extraterrestrials (Communicating with Aliens: the Psychological Dimension of Dialogue, 2000). This is potentially of even greater interest if they have developed the ability to constrain their population growth (Self-reflective Embodiment of Transdisciplinary Integration (SETI): the universal criterion of species maturity? 2008).

Psychoactive drugs: relevance to handling overpopulation debate

Presumably the effects of mind-altering drugs, especially those accumulating over longer periods, offer insights into the dangers of exposure of discussants to the dimensions of debate on overpopulation. Such psychoactive drugs act primarily upon the central nervous system, altering brain function, resulting in changes in perception, mood, consciousness and behavior. They are typically used recreationally (to alter consciousness), or as entheogens (for ritual or spiritual purposes, as a tool for studying or augmenting the mind), or therapeutically as medication.

Whatever their intended use, the relevant insights for discussion of "hot" topics like overpopulation, are the procedures and disciplines through which degrees of mind alteration are safely enabled -- with due attention to protection against associated dangers. The latter varies with the nature of the drug and the risks of dependence.

Consideration could of course be given, by analogy, to the "addictive state" and dependency of any worldview -- and its associated dangers. The addictive nature of particular worldviews has long been noted. Collective failure to address systemic issues, such as overpopulation, could well be understood as analogous to individual behavioural deficiencies typically of concern in the case of excess use of psychoactive drugs.

A relevant exercise might be exploration of an adaptation of the following diagram to apply to worldviews rather than to psychoactive drugs. It is as yet unclear where "consideration of overpopulation" might be located on such a diagram or whether the "growth-based" worldviews of "business as usual" would emerge as the most addictive, engendering the greatest harm. Which are to be considered the "hardest" drugs?

Mapping indicative of possibility of juxtaposing
dangerous worldviews (or "hot topics")
Possibility of juxtaposing dangerous worldviews (or "hot topics")
A rational scale to assess the harm of drugs (David Nutt, Leslie A King, William Saulsbury, Colin Blakemore. Development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse, The Lancet 2007; 369:1047-1053).

There is an extreme irony to the contrast worldwide between:

The collective commitment to population growth then constitutes an addiction -- a form of "business as usual" -- conflating these processes in an escape from the dangerous reality to which they contribute, namely a continuing increase in the global ecological footprint of humanity and its exacerbation of climate change.

Challenge of psychosocially hazardous encounters with otherness

The challenge of any encounter with "alternative" worldviews or modes of awareness is of course a feature of the more general challenge of "otherness" and of any "other" (Us and Them: Relating to Challenging Others -- patterns in the shadow dance between "good" and "evil". 2009; "Human Intercourse": "Intercourse with Nature" and "Intercourse with the Other", 2007).

Disagreement: The degree of disagreement which may be experienced in any encounter with otherness and alternatives may be readily considered a measure of psychosocial hazard. In this sense they are considered intolerable and unacceptable. The dangerous possibility of the viability of other modes of social organization has notably resulted in the instigated overthrow of the Allende government in Chile by the USA and the maintenance of half a century of US sanctions against Cuba. Such degrees of disagreement are evident in the relations between the policies promoted by the World Economic Forum and by the World Social Forum. They are also evident in the challenge of when and how to negotiate with regimes readily framed as "evil" (North Korea, Taliban, etc).

The key question then becomes whether disagreement is inherently hazardous and necessarily to be avoided or eliminated -- whether in the case of political, cultural, technological, religious, philosophical or conceptual approaches. The primary focus of many collective endeavours is curiously to eliminate disagreement and to make the elimination of that hazard the key to viable psychosocial organization. This endeavour is in total contradiction with valued biological and cultural diversity, especially to the extent that such diversity is recognized as being a key to sustainability (Psychology of Sustainability: embodying cyclic environmental processes, 2002; Using disagreements for superordinate frame configuration, 1995; Darrell A. Posey, Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity: a complementary contribution to Global Biodiversity Assessment, 1999).

Engaging with the shadow: There is an extensive literature on the psychological challenge of what is named as the shadow in psychoanalytic terms -- an encounter typically experienced as extremely hazardous. The "crisis of crises" faced by globali civilization, as variously noted, can then then be understood as an evocation of a collective shadow of humanity through which the constraining learnings necessary to viable sustainability become apparent and are collectively internalized.

Encounters with otherness can then be understood as constituting a powerful mirror through which such collective self-reflection is triggered (Stepping into, or through, the Mirror: embodying alternative scenario patterns, 2008). This is especially evident in the encounter between religions exacerbating the "clash of civilizations" (Thinking in Terror: Refocusing the interreligious challenge from "Thinking after Terror", 2005).

Embodiment of externalities: A major impediment to global strategic response to the "crisis of crises" is the manner in which it is so readily assumed that crises can be handled independently with little attention to their systemic interrelationships. Each initiative simplifies the challenge it chooses to confront by defining other facets and dimensions as "externalities" that can be ignored -- even though a sustainable outcome is dependent on the pattern of their connectivity. The Wikipedia entry provides numerous concrete examples. Consideration of such externalities may well be considered psychosocially hazardous -- if only to the methodologies and models through which each crisis is separately framed.

The approach to the crisis of "climate change" exemplifies this in treating population growth as an externality, hopefully assuming that fertility will decline -- effectively denying the challenge of population overshoot and the possibilities of civilizational collapse (Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Upside of Down: catastrophe, creativity, and the renewal of civilization, 2006; Jared M. Diamond, Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed, 2005). Ironically the actual collective capacity to respond to substantive global challenges tends also to be understood as an externality (Recognizing the Psychosocial Boundaries of Remedial Action, 2009).

The question is whether individuals and groups are able to reframe their cognitive heritage -- especially the considerations otherwise neglected or framed as "externalities" (Existential Embodiment of Externalities, 2009).

Psychoactive hazard warnings: symbols relevant to overpopulation debate

As indicated above with respect to various forms of recognition of psychosocial hazards, there is a case for suitably indicating the nature and level of risk, if only as is done with respect to individual television programmes, X-rated movies, and any need for "parental guidance". There is of course a long cultural tradition of warning signs, notably related to places of death, ritual and transformation. The memetic implications for challenging psychoactive debate might be considered intimately related to traditional use of sigils by secret societies. The examples below offer suggestions for the adaptation of hazard warning symbols (standard in many physical laboratories) to the "laboratories" in which psychosocial hazards might be best handled.

Hazard warning
Name Possible psychosocial hazard significance
in relation to debate on dangerous topics
Toxic sign Toxic sign Indication of debate addressing toxic outcomes of conventional "business as usual"
Radiation sign Radiation sign Indication of a source of potentially dangerous memes -- of "memetic radiation"
Ionizing radiation sign Ionizing radiation sign Indication of dangerously polarized debate
Non-ionizing radiation sign Non-ionizing radiation sign Indication of potential dangers to those who thrive on the reactive dynamics of polarized debate and are not conscious of the paradoxically combined effects of uncertainity and complementarity
Biohazard sign Biohazard sign Indication of debate with psychoactively hazardous implications for life and livelihood
Warning sign Warning sign General warning regarding debate with potentially unconventional outcomes threatening "business as usual"
High voltage sign High voltage sign High energy debate potentially dangerous to the unskilled or the unprotected
Chemical weapon symbo Chemical weapon symbol Psychoactive processes transformatively disruptive of the chemistry of dialogue and its comventional psychosocial processes
Laser hazard sign Laser hazard sign Coherently focused insight potentially damaging to conventional psychosocial structures and processes
Optical radiation Optical radiation Insights endangering conventional strategic vision through which "business as usual" is envisaged


Psychohazard symbols
Prior adaptations of some of the above symbols are accessible on the web,
including the collection of Warning Signs by Anders Sandberg
Psychohazard symbol Psychohazard symbol Psychohazard symbol Psychohazard symbol
On site of Sean Michael Ragan By Arenamontanus On site of Sean Michael Ragan

In a previous exploration of this issue with respect to psychologically "transformative" texts, the possibility of a warning symbol was considered (Psychoactive Text Warning: enneagram of precautionary attitudes, 2007):

Psychoactive Text Warning !
       Psychoactive Text Warning: enneagram of precautionary attitudes

Conference centres as psychosocially safe environments: Copenhagen, 2009?

Many conferences and their dynamics are specifically envisaged as providing a "safe space" within which issues of social importance can be discussed. This is notably the case with respect to issues of individual social change and transformation. The notion of a "safe space" may also be treated as important in the case of challenging peace negotiations, exemplified by the secret Oslo negotiations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Fundamental distinction: In the light of the above argument, and with respect to the United Nations Overpopulation Denial Conference, it is however appropriate to make a radical distinction between:

Psychosocial hazard management: Consideration could be given to the advantages and disadvantages of functions such as:

Where the threat of a "hot topic" is framed as "evil" (even of demonic origin), the design of an appropriate psychohazard facility might benefit from the long-established procedures of exorcism practiced in many cultures to handle powerful "negative forces". These could be adapted to the eviction of "negative influences" from the topic, the participants or the meeting venue, especially if a degree of possession is suspected.

Processes of preparatory "cleansing" of participants and of meeting places continue to be used in some indigenous cultures. Related concerns are evident in dialogue with cultures with strong concerns about avoiding ethical impurity, most evident in physical contact and shared use of facilities, but possibly extending to psychosocially hazardous "sinful" topics associated with incipient ethical impurity. Particular configurations (such as a pentagon or a medicine wheel) may be considered favourable protection against such problematic influences. Meetings may be variously "blessed" with the invocation of spiritual powers.

Mapping hot spots and degrees of psychosocial hazard

Full-spectrum mapping: A responsible approach to the array of psychosocially hazardous topics implies an appropriate mapping of their interrelationship and relative danger as a prelude to detecting and navigating the terrain. Of particular interest are those psychohazards that might be seen as equivalent to radioactive waste dumps, namely historical issues (such as massacres) which clearly have a very long half-life. Such a map is essential for the design of a psychohaz facility in which they might be fruitfully discussed, whether in isolation (in accordance with the danger they each represent) or together (with special attention to any problematic "binary" juxtaposition).

With respect to the domain of population issues, such a map should seek to identify clearly the full spectrum of positions, concerns and arguments -- irrespective of how they are questioned, criticized or upheld by various parties. Of particular importance is a sense of which positions on the map are to be considered as hazardous by whom, recognizing that some may be more (or less) resistant than others to particular hazards. The argument is that the map is indicative of where dialogue is reasonably feasible and where it is totally fraught with danger. Without such distinctions the domain as a whole is framed as too hazardous for any debate -- as indeed it is consdered to be at present. This is equally true of other highly controversial "hot topics".

"Missing links": Such a map would avoid the totally irresponsible delay in acknowledgement by the United Nations and "science" of the link between demographic pressure and climate change -- as finally published in the State of World Population (2009) days before the United Nations Climate Change Conference (as noted above). The incident raises the crucial question of what other links may be "missing" from global discourse at this time. Links between problematic issues, however tentative and controversial, could be held on such a map in anticipation of their confirmation or denial. This has been the procedure adopted for the databases of the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential since 1976.

Risk-aversion preferences: Also of relevance is an understanding of the risk-aversion or risk-taking characteristics of potential discussants. The challenge of addressing a topic like overpopulation as "hot" might well be compared to that of containing and cleaning up the nuclear reactor disaster at Chernobyl (1986) -- with its associated (voluntary) sacrifices of so many skilled and dedicated workers. However any mention of the vital need for a map is curiously related to the perspective on sacrifice of one postion on that map, as articulated at the religion think tank Theos by Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. He argues that Europeans specifically are now more interested in material things than in having children -- and in appropriately addressing the critical, hidden problem of dramatically diminishing rates of fertility:

Where today in European culture with its consumerism and instant gratification - because you're worth it - where will you find space for the concept of sacrifice for the sake of generations not yet born? Europe, at least the indigenous population of Europe, is dying. That is one of the unsayable truths of our time. We are undergoing the moral equivalent of climate change and no one is talking about it. (Europeans too selfish to have children, says Chief Rabbi, Telegraph, 5 November 2009)

Falling fertility: This concern with falling fertility is consistent with that previously expressed in the Declaration on the Decrease of Fertility in the World (1998) by the Pontifical Council for the Family. Another "missing link" for the map of any fruitful discussion of the overpopulation challenge? Another "inconvenient truth"? (An Inconvenient Truth -- about any inconvenient truth, 2008). As to sacrifice, one might argue that the current ill-considered promotion of "begetting" is effectively leading to the sacrifice of the many by the few through the levels of starvation noted by the above-mentioned World Summit on Food Security (Begetting: challenges and responsibilities of overpopulation, 2007).

Vital to any appropriate map is the fact that progressive fertility reduction has long been held to be fundamental to economic forecasts for the next decades on which the viability of current climate change responses is based -- despite the totally misplaced confidence in the economic models which gave rise to the unprecedented financial collapse of 2008. Curiously, whilst adherents of other faiths are acting enthusiastically on the injunction of Genesis 1:28, it is what might be termed "disproportionate begetting" that is of such concern to Judaism and Catholicism. Paradoxically, their failure to address the excessive begetting of others has somehow engendered an appropriate inhibition amongst their own adherents.

Existential dynamic of procreation: It is curious that the UN's approximation to a "map" of the population challenge takes the form of a report on the "State of World Population". This lacks any sense of the dynamics of population or any acknowledgement of the driving dynamic through which procreation takes place. The implied map has a "flat earth" quality to it, exemplified by the perspective on globalization of Thomas L Friedman (The World Is Flat: a brief history of the Twenty-first Century, 2005; Hot, Flat, and Crowded, 2008). Like the antiquated maps of the past, it has psychosocially dangerous "dragons" at its edges -- where there is also a risk of "falling off" and endangering one's soul (Irresponsible Dependence on a Flat Earth Mentality -- in response to global governance challenges, 2008).

Psychosocial system dynamics: Despite the development in 1972 of sophisticated models of system dynamics incorporating population dynamics, insights from the complexity sciences and dynamical systems regarding the nature of a more appropriate "global" map -- as so enthusiastically explored by climate scientists -- have since been avoided. Ironically, however, they appear to have been intuitively understood by politicians in their worldwide use of "spin". And yet the psychohazards are essentially dynamic and complex, possibly to be understood in the light of catastrophe theory as "cognitive catastrophes" occasioned by challenging questions (Conformality of 7 WH-questions to 7 Elementary Catastrophes: an exploration of potential psychosocial implications, 2006). Beyond any "flat earth" framing, the challenge to comprehension of globality might be expected to call upon more powerful metaphors to position appropriately the variety of perspectives on its appropriate governance (Metaphorical Geometry: in Quest of Globality in response to global governance challenges, 2009; Geometry of Thinking for Sustainable Global Governance, 2009).

Metaphoric reframing: It would seem that new and more appropriate metaphors could be sought in order to move beyond simplistic framing of the challenges that inhibit the emergence of new responses. The study of George Lakoff (Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: what categories reveal about the mind, 1990) suggests useful pointers. One readily comprehensible, universally accessible metaphor is that of snoring (Snoring of The Other: a politically relevant psycho-spiritual metaphor? 2006). This is especially the case since discussion of snoring is particularly hazardous to relationships between sexual partners and is a notable factor in marital breakdown. Efforts to discuss it between partners provide a valuable context for recognition of the challenging patterns of objectivity and denial which might be fruitfully recognized with respect to population issues. It would be appropriate to explore whether the current focus on reproduction, associated with any encounter with any significant other, obscures understanding of what might be more fruitfully engendered more generally in the spirit of "go forth and multiply" ("Human Intercourse": "Intercourse with Nature" and "Intercourse with the Other", 2007).


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